Exploring Jewish practices in israel and at home

Max and Sam Strickberger Sidwell Friends '17

Max and Sam Strickberger discovered fascinating differences between American and Israeli Judaism on their recent trip to Israel. (Published: 2015)

Jews have populated the world for millennia, fervently holding onto their religious beliefs while slowly adapting their culture to fit the people and environment that surrounds them. Some Jews with Spanish roots, for example, speak Ladino--a language traditionally written with Hebrew letters but based primarily on the Spanish language of their ancestors country. And the Jews of Eastern and Northern Europe--Ashkenazim, who most American Jews descend from--have added tall, black hats to their wardrobe, while the Jews of the Middle East and Northern Africa--Sephardim--wear yarmulkes that cover the entirety of their heads.

Thus, during our summer trip to Israel with a group of 10 Israelis and 20 Americans, we should have suspected that the Israelis on our trip would have notable differences in their Jewish customs and values from ours. However, we were surprised and, even more, we were fascinated by those differences.

During our first Shabbat in Israel, our group did an exercise centered around discovering the differences between Israeli and American Judaism. We were split into groups of three Americans and two Israelis and were given two dozen Jewish values, each on a slip of paper, to put in order from most to least important. The values touched every corner of Judaism including keeping kosher, raising Jewish children, living in Israel, reading Jewish books, remembering the Holocaust, and celebrating Passover.

In our group, both Americans and Israelis agreed that self-identifying as a Jew and raising Jewish children were the most essential values of Judaism. After that, however, there was a visible divide between the Americans and Israelis. The Israelis in our group believed


that living in Israel and knowing Jewish history deserved to be close to the top of the list, but having a bar/bat mitzvah and observing Yom Kippur should fall farther down. However, we and the other Americans thought just the opposite.

Tal, an articulate secular Israeli who seldom celebrates Shabbat, explained: “in Israel we don't need to have as much of a focus on observing Yom Kippur, celebrating other holidays, or keeping kosher because by simply living in Israel we are reminded everyday that we are Jewish."

For Jews living in the minority, which is everywhere except for Israel, observing holidays, the Shabbat, and other religious or cultural aspects of Judaism, are ways to keep our Judaism alive. In Israel, however, where Jews are the majority, living a Jewish lifestyle, especially from a cultural perspective, is a “default.” Since most people around you are Jewish, many aspects of Judaism that American Jews have to go to extra lengths to fulfill, such as keeping kosher, are easily done in Israel.

American Jews are vastly reform or conservative. Our most celebrated religious holidays--Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah--are also the ones that require the most effort. We fast, and for over a week we don’t eat bread; we light candles and sing songs for eight days in a row. Since only 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, we practice religious aspects of Judaism to keep our Judaism alive. For example, unlike in Israel, in the U.S. there is an enormous emphasis on having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a ceremony that welcomes Jewish children into adulthood. We utilize events like this to remind ourselves and our children of our history, our culture, and our spirituality. American Jews often fuse religion with culture because our religion is what differentiates us as a minority and our culture is how we preserve our connection to that religion.

Aside from a small orthodox minority in Israel, Israelis--like all the kids on our trip--are predominantly secular. Therefore, the way that most Israelis connect to Judaism is from a cultural perspective such as through food and ritual. For example, for the Shabbat dinner in the Israeli homes, they filled a large silver wine glass to the brim (for the blessing over the wine) and prepared a magnificent three course meal--both traditional observances of Shabbat. However, they sustain these rituals not because they revere the teachings of millennia old rabbis, but because their surrounding culture favors these customs. Also, the Israelis on our trip generally eat kosher food, and not because of faith, but because all the restaurants around them serve kosher food. And, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, while close to 60% of Israelis “always” light Shabbat candles, close to 60% of Israelis “never” attend synagogue. Thus, many Israeli Jews practice religious Judaism only if it intersects with their cultural activities and rarely observe religious practices out of sole religious belief.

Discovering this sense of diversity in the Jewish community was an illuminating takeaway from our trip to Israel. It made us understand the infinite approaches to a "Jewish lifestyle" and helped us appreciate the nuanced approaches to Judaism in our community here at home.